Delight Springs

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Machiavelli to Cavell

It's MachiavelliHobbes, Dworkin, Posner, Danto, and Cavell in CoPhi, with Quentin Skinner on Machiavelli (and he also has unassigned thoughts on Hobbes). Some of them sound like cricketers, or a law firm. Or both.

Mistrust, suspicion, refusal to really listen to others: these are symptomatic features of the world as Machiavelli and Hobbes knew it, a world full of testimonial injustice. Not to mention intrigue, plot, war, and violence. The more things change...

Niccolo Machiavelli praised virtu’ in a leader: manliness and valor are euphemistic translations, ruthless efficiency might be more to the point. A wise prince, he said, does whatever it takes to serve the public interest as he sees it. But does he see it aright? Hard to tell, if you can’t believe a word he says. But Skinner and others think he's gotten a bad name unfairly. (See videos below.)

A new detective mystery starring Nicco has recently been published, btw, and was featured on NPR. “What would happen if two of the biggest names of the Renaissance — Niccolo Machiavelli and Leonardo da Vinci — teamed up as a crime-fighting duo?” Beats me, may have to read The Malice of Fortune. One of our groups, I think, is doing a midterm report on Superheroes. Room for one more?

Thomas Hobbes is one of my favorite “authoritarians”: a walker who kept an inkwell in his walking stick, he
 lived to 91 in the 17th century and (like John Rawls much later) believed humans could be saved from themselves with the right kind of contract. Contrary to a student essay I once graded, he did not say humans were once “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Nor did he ever have a stage musical.

Hobbes did say that’s what it would be like to live in a “state of nature,” without civil authority or police or government to keep the peace and impose order. It would be a “war of all against all.” If you don’t agree, asks Nigel, why do you lock your doors? Not, surely, because you think everyone’s out to get you. But it only takes a few miscreants, doesn’t it, to create an atmosphere of paranoia and mistrust?

I’d like to think Hobbes might reconsider the extremity of his position, were he transported to our time. On the other hand, we might reconsider the benignity of ours, were we transported to his. Those were tough times: civil war, a king executed, murderous politics, etc. How much freedom would you trade for peace and safety, if there were no other way to  secure it? How much have we? How much have times really changed?

I for one do not agree that it’s better to be feared than loved, either personally or professionally. And as I place an even greater premium on being listened to, and understood, I owe it to others to really listen to what they’re saying too. It’s when we write one another off, isn’t it, that suspicions arise and conflict ensues? Haven't we seen that in spades, in our own polity?

Legal scholar Ronald Dworkin thought the best way to rectify political discord and gridlock was for us all to "take rights seriously," and then "discover (not invent)" the moral principles that would best preserve them. Our guiding light, he said, should be the conviction that "individual life is sacred."

But, Dworkin found "absurd" the idea that people not yet born might have interests, preliminary to their full claim to possession of rights accruing to them as living persons. That was his blind spot. Until we come fully to appreciate our moral obligation to transmit to our heirs a world worth inheriting, we'll have no sharp disincentive to prevent the plunder of our only presently-habitable planet for private short-term gain. That's reprehensible. It dishonors individual life past, present, and future, to recognize only the rights of the living.

Dworkin's final legacy is the book he was working on, at his death earlier this year at age 81. 
In “Religion Without God,”Dworkin asks to what extent and on what basis should constitutional protection be afforded to religious activities, especially when those activities are in conflict with settled law? Any answer to that question must first define what religion is (something the courts have never been able to do), and Dworkin begins boldly in his very first sentence: “The theme of this book is that religion is deeper than God.” Dworkin doesn’t mean that being religious and believing in God are incompatible; he means that the latter is a possible version of, but not the essence of, the former.
Legal scholar (and Reagan-appointed judge) Richard Posner has tackled another sensitive area, in Sex and Reason. (No, he's not blown the lid off of reason.) Oddly prompted by Plato's Symposium and by a curious state statute concerning public nudity, he decided it was high time for the judiciary to avail itself of the "vast cultural material available about sex." He selflessly volunteered to review it all himself. No prurient interest here, eh judge? In fact, Romano thinks he may be a bit of juris-prude. And for his part, Dworkin thought "many of Posner's most confident and important judgments highly doubtful or plain wrong."

Arthur Danto, premier aesthetician of his generation (and former MTSU Lyceum speaker), has interesting thoughts on what makes Andy Warhol's Brillo cartons and Marcel Duchamp's urinal (click, then scroll to the bottom to see his "Fountain") works of art. In a word: interpretation. Or in another word: philosophy. "Things which look the same are really different" is Danto's "whole philosophy of art in a nutshell." That's the kind of statement it takes to make someone the "weightiest critic in the Manhattan art world" these days, just in case you're scrounging for career suggestions. [The end of art]

Stanley Cavell (yet another Harvard prof) is the philosopher who made film a respectable subject for our discipline, and made the world safe for my perpetual references to Woody Allen et al. "I'll be hanging in a classroom one day..." [Cavell at SAAP]

Mentioned "Sophie's Choice" in class just yesterday, "Sarah's Key" and "Inception" the other day, "Bull Durham" and "Life of Brian" too often to count... guess I should be teaching the philosophy of film class. Maybe Day After Tomorrow.

I too can say, with Cavell: "memories of movies are strand over strand with memories of my life." Not sure I'd also say, though, that Hollywood embodies "the chief 20th-century expression of the American transcendentalism of Emerson and Thoreau."  But I wonder, and will ask my students: has "popular music superseded film as the most important art among young people?"

If so, pop music is still looking for its Cavell. In case you're not going for art criticism.

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